December is both a busy time of year — people are finishing up year-end work projects, wrapping up last-minute shopping, preparing for holiday guests — and also a slower time — enjoying some time off before the new year starts. Such is the duality of December.
What is it about Nebraska — not the state but the idea of it — that prompts artists to strip everything down to the wall studs? Bruce Springsteen titled his darkest, sparest album after the place in 1982 and now comes Alexander Payne with Nebraska, a desolate comedy-drama about fathers, sons, life’s highways and missed off-ramps. It’s a movie that floods you with emotion when you least expect it.
The film, shot by Phedon Papamichael in a black-and-white palette that tends toward the infrared end of the spectrum, is a close cousin to Payne’s 2002 About Schmidt, which sent widower Jack Nicholson across the country in search of himself. The difference — and it’s crucial — is that the sojourner in Nebraska is uninterested in self-knowledge. It’s his son who connects the dots. If Schmidt was about the mysteries of one’s grown children (among other things), the new film mines a deeper ache, that of the child who looks at the father and hopes for answers to the riddle of himself.